An Intimacy That Is Absolute: On (Reluctantly) Becoming a Father

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With any number of women I dated, objections to my stance against ever having children were easy enough to deflect with random statistics and the half chapter of Schopenhauer I’d skimmed in college. As I got older, at parties with toddlers underfoot or flushed with merlot over an expensive meal, the arguments became more strenuous, breakups more predictable.

My friend Danny, hitched at 18 and three kids in, told me to grow up.

“Who do you think you’re kidding?”

Certainly not the 12 people who came to see the band I was in. They knew real talent when they saw it. Also, like almost everyone else in San Francisco, I was trying to finish a novel. For someone who imagined himself an artist, I was terrible at expressing my feelings. The truth was that I feared anything sticky and loud. Also, I hated the idea of having to watch a version of myself grow up again. Although safely suburban, my childhood was the usual slog of insecurities and self-loathing. To revisit it as an observer who spent most of his time limiting Internet usage was the last thing I wanted to do.

But I couldn’t just say so.

“Procreation is a genetic drive our species no longer needs, let alone understands. I mean, Lars Von Trier isn’t for everyone, so why should kids be? Besides, it’s a matter of ethics. I’m not sacrificing my music for a decade of tantrums and juice boxes.”

Danny sighed. “Seriously, man, do you ever just step back and listen to yourself?”

As the night manager of a youth hostel, each shift required me to deal with four central truths: 1) there were never enough rooms, 2) there were always too many people, 3) a reservation only guaranteed that you were holding a piece of paper, 4) the lobby air was often choked with hatred for the night manager. It was hard not to view the job as a parable for all the injustices that take place across all the desks in the world. Which is why I’d spend most shifts in the back office poring over articles about zero population growth and bee extinction. Apocalyptic events were my Xanax. If the world was ending anyway, I was making a brave choice by not subjecting my theoretical son to it. If my non-existent daughter knew about the destruction of ancient African teak groves by a company that had discovered a way to convert them into a polymer that approximated real wood flooring, she’d refuse to leave the womb. While some of the articles were more persuasive than others, the overall message was clear: the planet was booked to capacity. We did not require a single additional person.

On the other hand, my girlfriend had recently and inexplicably begun to express a desire to become my wife. Her timing was excellent. The list of unmarried couples who went with us to see plays and eat spider rolls and wander the streets at night had begun to shrink noticeably. I fought against it. I joined an improv troupe and read Czech poetry and spent even more hours shoved against amps in smoky clubs, but it didn’t work. Most weekends we ordered in, watched endless re-runs of Friends. Ross and Rachael needed more from life than carefully orchestrated foreplay. Chandler was doomed to empty, acerbic quips. The shrill Phoebe would die alone. Everyone I knew mocked network television for being so dumb, but it was obvious now that we were in denial of how accurate it all was. On any given show, the characters were the sum of us—confused, not particularly special, on a search for meaning just as likely to be found in a Seinfeld bass line as anywhere else.

For a year, my girlfriend and I did almost nothing but attend weddings. They invariably took place on the slopes of Napa wineries, with endless mountain vistas and lazy contrails and Thai appetizers. I lurked in the shadows and wrestled with my tie, cursed the groom for giving in so easily. I tried to imagine what it cost to buy 100 flower arrangements in the shape of a double-helix or hire a wedding band that wouldn’t even crack a smile when I requested Slayer, who turned away without a word and counted it down once again: Cel-e-brate good times, c’mon! Each silent ride home dissected the ceremony better than an argument ever could. Our tan rental car boomed through the Sausalito tunnel, the emergence from dark to light so obviously a fertility metaphor that even sports radio couldn’t blot it out. Next were the baby showers and baby gifts and babies held precariously on laps. There were nipple-adherence rules to be discussed and advances in Mozart exposure to be debated. Also, a vast amount of equipment had to be acquired: jumpers and danglers and rockers, cutlery locks and staircase fencing, even a mechanized disposal that wrapped used diapers in plastic sheeting like half-price steaks. New husbands and dads, formerly the street-fighting men of my 20s, stood on patios with plastic monitors clipped to their belts, refusing to answer my questions with anything but swallows of beer.

“It’s awesome, man. You’ll see.”

We finally had The Discussion after watching a documentary about Robert McNamara, who, like all Secretaries of State before and after, failed to see the wisdom in preparing for the fall. There were three issues: what I wanted, what she wanted, what we wanted. I offered to arm wrestle for it. Instead, we lit a candle and sat cross-legged on a fraction of our available thread count, while she hinted at a fulfillment I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“You’d be an amazing father.”

“I don’t even have a bank account.”

“We’ll open one. It’s easy.”

“Sometimes I smash beer bottles in the alleyway outside our bedroom window.”

“There’s a broom in the closet. You’ll evolve.”

I knew this was the rare chance to be completely unguarded, to say what I thought no matter how humiliating it sounded.

“I’m terrified.”

“Of what?”

It was a long list.

“I guess being that guy who talked a good game, but finally gave in like everyone else.”

Our daughter was born the standard nine months later.

As my wife rested, exhausted from her labors, I carefully bathed our little girl. I rubbed the birth from between her fingers and toes, gently dripped water over her belly. I swaddled her as instructed, rocked and cooed, played with her kneecaps, which were the size of dimes. I let her sleep on my chest, struck dumb by her mix of animal purity and near-weightlessness. If I were my own date movie, there would have been shots of me forlorn, staring at my reflection in a bank window, followed by a montage of comical epiphanies, diaper bags and Baby Bjorns, and the rolled eyes of passing supermodels. But somehow I didn’t care. I no longer needed to come to terms with giving up the band, or the little room where I kept milk crates full of cords and wires and moldy paperbacks. With the discovery of a freckle at the base of my daughter’s neck, I was transformed. Cynicism, it turned out, was worthless. Fear was just another neurological scam. I’d always thought there was a system I could never allow myself to become part of, that it could be challenged by writing articles like “Remember Iran-Contra?” and “The Slow Death of Truck Emissions Standards” and “10 Reasons Not to Buy Gifts on Valentine’s Day.” But to wrest a tiny beast from the dark matter through the simple act of release was to acknowledge that the system, if it even existed, was vastly more complex and unknowable than could ever be grasped, let alone influenced in any way.

I could barely wait to change my first diaper.

She is now 11. It turns out that reproduction is less a matter of philosophy or random mathematical consideration than the beginning of a very particular style of courtship. Having a child is like speed dating a tiny, better part of yourself. You sit across the folding table of their innocence, tell stories, gather information, meet again and again and again. Every month they expand, become a fresh iteration of a person you want to charm anew, to protect and inspire, to spend weekends trying to decipher the odd little clues they leave scattered around the house. Eleven years ago I was forced to accept the exponential degree to which I required more love in my life, a gift which in some ways was less of a surprise than my criminal lack of awareness that I needed it at all. And so in an hour I’ll close my laptop and swing by school to pick up a goofy, sarcastic little person with hair down to the small of her back, an exuberant, indescribable unit who almost did not exist, who was brought into the world by two distinct people — one of whom continues to be right about almost everything, and the other a man who for nearly a decade was foolish enough to retreat into platitudes, to rely on the abstract, to deny the power of an intimacy that is absolute.

Image Credit: Pexels/Josh Willink.